- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

NEW YORK — Dressed for a night on the town, Serena Williams was all business in her first match in 41/2 weeks.

Williams strode into Arthur Ashe Stadium wearing knee-high black boots, a pleated denim miniskirt, a studded black tank top and dangling earrings. A far cry from the tennis attire of days gone by, to be sure, but then again, Williams’ powerful strokes bear little resemblance to the way the women’s game used to be played.

Showing little sign of her injury-induced layoff, the two-time U.S. Open champion advanced to the second round with ease, overwhelming Sandra Kleinova of the Czech Republic 6-1, 6-3 last night.

“I performed at a decent level today. I’m finally getting to a point where I’m actually playing better and focusing better,” Williams said.

A few moments later, asked who her biggest threat in the tournament is, Williams replied, “Myself. I can make it or break it.”

She might have been dressed for a cocktail party or MTV’s Video Music Awards, which she attended last year while skipping the Open shortly after left knee surgery.

Her play yesterday was definitely Grand Slam-caliber, though, a step above what fellow major champions Jennifer Capriati, Roger Federer and Carlos Moya showed in shaky victories earlier on Day 1. At night, 1999 Open runner-up Todd Martin lost the final match of his career, announcing his retirement after being beaten by No.31 Fabrice Santoro 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

Only one man in the draw is older than Martin, by a matter of months: Andre Agassi, 34, who followed Williams on center court and beat Robby Ginepri 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2.

Williams said her choice of denim was inspired by Agassi, who wore shorts made of that material back in the early 1990s. That was when Agassi was Mr. “Image is Everything.” These days he’s more “Father Knows Best,” playing a limited schedule now that he and wife Steffi Graf have two children.

“I managed to fight hard in a lot of those rallies and won the crucial points,” Agassi said.

There weren’t many crucial points for Williams, who finished with a remarkable 35-3 edge in winners and saved the only break point she faced with one of her seven aces.

“Her serving was pretty good. If she places it really well, like she did tonight, it’s hard to return — even for guys,” Kleinova said.

Williams said last week she’s at 90 to 95 percent, working her way back since pulling out of a tournament at Carlsbad, Calif., in late July because of soreness in her left knee. Williams also missed the Olympics, deciding not to go only hours before the U.S. tennis team’s flight to Greece.

“I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to prepare for this event,” she said. “I’m taking it a day at a time. I’m just so excited to be out here again in New York. It’s been a while.”

After warming up, she had to take off the boots — actually, they ran from the top of her black sneakers to her knees — because U.S. Open officials told Williams last month that she couldn’t wear them during a match. Like Tommy Haas’ sleeveless muscle shirt two years ago, the boots don’t meet the “customary tennis attire” rule, tournament referee Brian Earley and tournament director Jim Curley determined.

Williams termed it her “Rebel Without a Cause” look and said it should be described as “Serena the Innovator strikes again.” She won the 2002 Open wearing what she called a catsuit, a skintight black Lycra outfit that caused a stir.

“It’s great that Serena has so much confidence to stand out and do something different. She goes beyond tennis,” 1979 and 1981 U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin said. “Tennis needs that. We need the Andre Agassis, the Serena Williams, the Maria Sharapovas, the Andy Roddicks that are willing to stand out and be different.”

Williams has won just one tournament in the last year: in March, at her first event back after 81/2 months away because of the operation. She lost to Capriati in the French Open quarterfinals, her earliest exit at a major since 2000. Then, in a big upset, Williams lost the Wimbledon final to Sharapova last month.

In Kleinova, Williams wasn’t exactly facing a contender. Kleinova is just 8-25 this year, and she’s 1-6 for her career at the Open. But players’ fortunes can change as quickly as the direction of the swirling wind at the Open.

Just ask Capriati, Federer and Moya, who barely played well enough to advance. Or, better yet, ask Mario Ancic and Karolina Sprem, who marked themselves as stars-to-be at Wimbledon but were one-and-done at the next Grand Slam.

Frustrated by a strong breeze, her opponent’s superb play and her own miscues, Capriati trailed 54th-ranked Denise Chladkova by a set, then put together a 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 victory.

“It was a little bit scary there in the beginning,” the eighth-seeded Capriati said. “I had to make some adjustments, trying to find my range a little bit, and the wind was pretty difficult. One side, you would hit the ball, and it seemed like it would go 10 feet out. On the other side, you couldn’t get it past the service line.”

To compensate, Capriati used different rackets at different ends of the court, and whether the edge that provided was real or perceived, it eventually worked.

Federer struggled, too, but got past 2002 French Open champion Albert Costa 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. Third-seeded Moya had his problems against 19-year-old Brian Baker but came back to win 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 after Baker was hit by what he called “nervous cramps.”

Sprem, meanwhile, looked little like the player who upset Venus Williams en route to the quarterfinals at the All England Club: The 18th-seeded Croatian lost to countrywoman Jelena Kostanic 6-3, 2-6, 6-4. And No.27 Ancic, also from Croatia, was beaten by Olivier Rochus of Belgium 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (2). It was a step back for Ancic, who appeared to make a career-changing breakthrough by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, then won an Olympic bronze medal in doubles.

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